Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories normalized in Germany during pandemic, study finds

“The normalization of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust relativization will not easily be reversed with the end of the pandemic,” the report warned.

By Sharon Wrobel, The Algemeiner 

As cases of COVID-19 once more begin to rise in Germany, a study released Monday detailed how the pandemic has fueled anti-Semitic conspiracy myths, holding German Jews responsible for the spread of the virus and for government measures to contain it.

Working with the American Jewish Committee Berlin (AJC), the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS) recorded a total of 561 anti-Semitic incidents connected to the COVID-19 pandemic between March 2020 and March 2021. Almost 60% of the incidents were related to anti-Semitic statements found in speeches, slogans and posters, seen at demonstrations taking place throughout Germany but especially in Bavaria and Berlin.

“We can only urgently warn against underestimating the incidents and participants at coronavirus demonstrations and the protests themselves,” said Remko Leemhuis, director of AJC Berlin. “It needs to be emphasized that even if the protests were largely dominated by right-wing extremist forces, a not to be underestimated number of people from the bourgeois spectrum also took part, who were either not bothered with the apparent anti-Semitism or even spread it themselves.”

“The normalization of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and Holocaust relativization will not easily be reversed with the end of the pandemic,” the report warned.

The study found that despite the absence of violence, these incidents often involved face-to-face situations targeting specific victims. According to a number of conspiracy theories, state measures to contain the pandemic were openly compared or equated with the persecution and murder of Jews during the Nazi regime. At demonstrations, flyers were distributed showing the gate to the Auschwitz extermination camp with the inscription changed from the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” to “vaccination makes you free.”

“Anti-Semitic conspiracy myths experienced a strong boom in times of the coronavirus pandemic,”said Daniel Poensgen, a researcher at RIAS, who led the study. “Notions of the Jews’ secret influence on politics, the media and the economy were not only articulated at protests against the German government’s coronavirus measures, but also beyond them, and were perceived by Jews in everyday situations.”

In such instances, Jews described being harassed and insulted while shopping in supermarkets and other public spaces, where people accused them of being responsible for bringing the disease to the world.

In one April 2020 case, a woman wearing a Star of David necklace went to a supermarket in Berlin’s Neukölln district, when she noticed that another customer was eyeing her conspicuously. The customer then turned to his companion, saying, “They were the ones with the virus.”

The study also showed that 128, or 22%, of the COVID-related incidents happened online, including those involving the US-based QAnon conspiracist movement — which has rapidly found new audiences in Germany during the pandemic.

The report said that the success of the debunked theory had “increased significantly” with the start of measures to contain the coronavirus in March 2020, with the number of followers of relevant QAnon channels rising more than fivefold in short order.

“It is not only since the COVID-19 protests that wherever conspiracy stories are spread, anti-Semitism is usually not far,” commented Benjamin Strasser, parliamentary chairman of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP). “Each of us has to take action and contradict anti-Semitic narratives wherever possible.”